Trump's Uneasy Gamble

The 45th President’s inaugural address encapsulated the risky gamble the Republican Party is taking on his combative approach.

Jim Bourg / AP

Donald Trump’s combative and confrontational speech, unusual for an inaugural address, encapsulated the defining political gamble he is presenting to a Republican Party still uneasily settling into his harness.

Trump’s narrow victory last November pushed at every fault line in American politics, sharply dividing the country along lines of race, generation, education and geography. His inaugural address, centered on disdain for “the establishment” and political leadership, showed that he remains committed to a course that is more likely to deepen than narrow those divides––a dynamic underscored by the virtually unprecedented protests that erupted just beyond the inaugural parade route on Friday.

In his address, Trump offered a definition of his presidency that spoke directly to the anxieties of his uneasy electoral coalition centered on the non-college educated and non-urban whites that supported him in record numbers. But the speech may also strike those more optimistic about the direction of American life as too grim, divisive, insular, and backward looking.

By framing his presidency in such stark terms, Trump is committing the Republican Party to a high-stakes political bet: that he can squeeze more advantage out of that first group, which has been shrinking as a share of the electorate, than he will lose from the second, which includes the constituencies that have been growing most rapidly-Millennials, minorities and college-educated whites, particularly women.

“I don’t doubt that there’s a chunk of folks out there who will lap it up,” said Democratic pollster Guy Molyneux, who specializes in studying opinions among the white working class. “But it struck me as too negative, too harsh to really broaden the appeal.”

With few of the rhetorical flourishes common to these addresses, and only glancing gestures toward unity, Trump echoed his major campaign themes to present himself as the champion of “the forgotten men and women of our country” against elites at home and abroad that he said had produced an “American carnage” with “factories scattered like tombstones” and cities reeling under “crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives.”

Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on a hill” it was not.

That unusually glum portrayal––a searing rebuke of the nation’s political leadership seated just behind him––echoed the tone of Trump’s most important campaign speeches.  Once again, it showed Trump committed to framing his political movement as an uprising against a self-dealing domestic leadership class and a duplicitous world determined to take advantage of the U.S. both economically and militarily. “From this moment on,” Trump insisted, “it’s going to be America first.”

This insular and pugnacious vision fits Trump’s expressed desire to transform the GOP into a “worker’s party” centered on working class voters across racial lines. It also bears the clear imprint of his controversial White House counselor Stephen Bannon, the former Breitbart executive, who has talked about building a global movement of populist nationalist parties opposed to greater global economic and diplomatic integration.

But, after an election when Trump lost the popular vote by nearly three million, it’s unclear whether that vision can obtain majority public support in the U.S.––or even how much of the Republican Party can accept it, either in policy or political terms. The goals of Trump and Republican Congressional leaders overlap most clearly around issues of retrenching government: cutting taxes and spending, repealing the Affordable Care Act, and rolling back federal regulation, particularly those that restrain the development and use of fossil fuels. Action could come quickly on all of those fronts.

In other areas, though, the alliance is more tenuous between the priorities of most Republicans and the party’s core institutional allies, and the blue-collar populism Trump reaffirmed on Friday.

At home, his determination to spend more on infrastructure and to resist changes in the big entitlement programs for seniors grates against the instincts of conservative budget-cutters. Abroad, his skepticism about alliances––expressed again in a remarkable recent interview with European newspapers where he disparaged the European Union and NATO––and his determination to reach a new accommodation with Vladimir Putin finds virtually no support among mainstream GOP foreign policy thinkers. And his determination to raise tariffs against imports and to punish U.S. companies that shift investments abroad collides with both conservative free market orthodoxy and the direct self-interest of business groups long indispensable to the GOP coalition.

Trump’s transition has offered emphatically mixed signals on how he will manage these tensions. On the one hand, his Cabinet nominees have tried to mollify Congressional concerns by renouncing many of his edgiest statements during their confirmation hearings. Yet in his inaugural address, as in his post-election tweets and interviews, Trump resoundingly reaffirmed these populist anti-global and anti-elite, Bannon-infused themes––as if none of those contradictory comments from his Cabinet had ever occurred.

Inauguration addresses inevitably frame more questions than answers. Trump’s address deepened the questions inherent in his candidacy from the outset.

Can he maintain his image as a champion of the white working-class while pursuing a legislative agenda that on most fronts will provide big business more of what it wants than any president since Ronald Reagan?

Can his “America first” agenda expand his working-class support across racial lines-or will his hardline approach to crime and immigration continue to suppress his minority support?

Can his policies reverse decades of manufacturing employment decline and income stagnation among non-college educated workers-and can he maintain his preponderant white working class support if he does not?

Will business accept hectoring on foreign investment decisions as the price of Trump providing so much else they are seeking-or will they eventually revolt against his targeting of individual companies and politicizing of seemingly every investment decision?

Will his nativist and protectionist instincts combine with widespread doubts about his personal qualifications to alienate more of the generally pro-globalization white-collar white voters who already resisted him in unusually high numbers last November?

And will the country, particularly his Republican allies in Congress, accept a potentially wrenching redirection of foreign policy to sublimate traditional alliances and the American-led rules-based international order to tactical case-by-case deal making and an overarching focus on combating what he called (in capitals) “Radical Islamic Terrorism.”

One thing is already clear: it won’t be just Trump whose fate hangs on the answers to these questions. The president’s standing has become critical in driving the results of Congressional elections, and Trump arrives in office with the lowest approval and personal favorability ratings of any newly elected president in the history of polling dating back to 1953. He remains strong among his core constituency of blue-collar whites and voters continue to express optimism about his ability to improve the economy’s performance and to make progress against terrorism.

But in the flurry of pre-inauguration polls this week he was facing intense skepticism on both his personal qualities and policy agenda from the groups that most resisted him during the election: minorities, Millennials and college-educated whites. That weakness will be of special interest to the nearly two dozen House Republicans serving in districts that voted for Hillary Clinton over Trump; almost all of those districts are in places, like the suburbs of Philadelphia or Denver, with a higher than average share of college-educated whites.

The clearest message from Trump’s inaugural is that he is serious about defining his presidency around themes and ideas that no other Republican president has ever employed––and very few Republicans on Capitol Hill or in the states would completely endorse. With its sweeping denunciations of political leaders, the speech also signaled to the GOP leadership that he feels no hesitation about using his allies, as well as his adversaries, as a foil––a message he’s already sent to the business community through his tweet storms over overseas investments.

Trump’s inaugural signals again that he genuinely believes he is leading “a historic movement” that will shatter historic political alignments and create a new blue-collar based “America first” electoral majority. To a greater extent than they may appreciate, other Republicans are strapped in for that ride. What they learned on Friday is that Donald Trump is arriving in the presidency with his pedal to the metal in hurtling them all, enthusiastically or not, down that uncharted road.